Treatment for all cancer is most effective when the cancer is detected early, even before symptoms develop. This is why effective screening is so important. If physicians catch cancer early, especially in people most at risk, treatment can be even more effective.
Regular screening is important to reduce the risk of having more advanced colorectal cancer. In 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated its colorectal cancer screening guidelines, increasing the number of individuals eligible for screening.
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Colorectal cancer is a condition that develops in the lower intestine, either the colon or rectum, and causes symptoms such as bowel movement changes, abdominal pain and weight loss as it progresses. It is a common cancer often detected through regular screening and requires physician diagnosis from specific tests. When detected early, colorectal cancer is treatable and can even be cured with surgery. For this reason, colorectal cancer screening saves lives.
Colorectal screening often consists of one or several tests that help detect colorectal cancer. There are five main screening tests, including:
- Digital rectal exam: The doctor gently inserts a gloved, lubricated finger into the rectum and feels for abnormal areas.
- Fecal occult blood test: Samples of stool are tested for blood that is not visible to the eye. Blood can be a sign of polyps, other benign conditions or cancer.
- Sigmoidoscopy: The doctor inserts a small, flexible, lighted tube into the rectum and lower colon to inspect up to 25 inches of the lower bowel. Polyps can be easily removed during this exam.
- Colonoscopy: The doctor inspects the entire colon with an instrument similar to a sigmoidoscope, but longer. Any polyps or suspicious growths can be removed during this exam.
- Barium enema with air contrast examination: For this exam, barium sulfate, a chalky substance that shows up on X-rays, is given in enema form. X-rays are then taken of the colon. To make small tumors easier to see, the doctor may carefully pump in air to expand the colon.
Colorectal cancers are the third most common type of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2022, about 151,000 new cases of colorectal cancer will be diagnosed and that it will cause over 53,000 deaths.
Cancer screening is essential for our communities, because it can help detect cancer in its earlier and easier treated stages. During certain screening tests, it is even possible to remove polyps or suspicious growths that might progress into cancer. Colorectal cancer screening is also important for everyone at risk.
There are a few groups considered to be at higher risk for developing colorectal cancer. Some risk factors are out of a person’s control but contribute to likelihood for colorectal cancer to develop. These include:
- Height (taller people are at higher risk)
- Family history
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- An inherited syndrome
Other risk factors can be modified with lifestyle changes. These include:
- Obesity or being overweight
- Diets high in processed meat
- Physical inactivity
- Poor diet (low calcium, vitamin D or folate)
- Smoking and alcohol use
Age is a primary factor for assessing elevated risk. As of 2021, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is now officially recommending getting screened for colorectal cancer at age 45, rather than 50. Physicians are seeing increased incidence of colorectal cancer in patients younger than age 50. There are multiple reasons for this, including diet and sedentary lifestyles in the American population.
Higher risk patients are usually those recommended for colorectal cancer screening. As of 2021, adults 45 and older are eligible for colorectal cancer screening, and high-risk patients should get screened regularly until age 75. After age 75, it is up to you and your physician to determine whether you need to continue screening.
Insurance coverage for screening tests actually reflects who is eligible for screening. For patients at or over the age of 45, insurance typically covers the costs of colorectal cancer screening tests.
As internationally recognized leaders in the field, Washington University Colon and Rectal partners with Siteman Cancer Center to treat about 350 new colorectal cancer patients each year. Siteman Cancer Center physicians provide the highest level of care for patients with colorectal cancer.
Siteman Cancer Center offers screening, care options and treatments for patients with colorectal cancer. Colorectal surgeons are based in Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital, the Center for Advanced Medicine – South County and Siteman Cancer Center and Christian Hospital. They also provide consultation with gender-specific physicians to guarantee the comfort of patients during this sensitive treatment process.
Washington University and Siteman Cancer Center offer an online tool that helps patients assess their cancer risk and suggest ways to lower it. It’s available at YourDiseaseRisk.com
To learn more about the Colorectal Cancer Screening Program at Siteman Cancer Center, please call 314-747-3046 or visit the Siteman Cancer Center website.
To make an appointment with a Washington University colorectal surgeon, please call 314-454-7177 or visit the Colon and Rectal Surgery website.